Becoming the Dean of the College of Education was never the plan, but that’s where Deborah Rifenbary finds herself for the incoming Fall 2019 semester. 

Rifenbary is replacing the former dean, Salvador Hector Ochoa, on an interim basis. Ochoa left the University of New Mexico for a provost position at San Diego State University, according to an SDSU news release. He starts July 2. Before Ochoa left, Rifenbary said she was planning on retiring in December. 

“I think the college is in a transition right now. I think that I am someone who can offer stability. I have always been an advocate for faculty voice, collaboration and collegiality. I am committed to student success,” Rifenbary, who previously held an associate dean position in the college, told the Daily Lobo.  

The position vacancy, which Rifenbary described as sudden and unexpected, comes as the college grapples with the domino effects of declining enrollment. Rifenbary acknowledged the University’s enrollment problem as a significant challenge, but said that it allows them to rethink how they teach students. 

Rifenbary is drawling on a well of experience in teaching as the college undergoes that transition. Teaching has been her life for a long time. 

“You have to realize, at the time I graduated college and was getting my masters degree, there weren't the same opportunities that there are right now for young women,” she said. 

She described the expectations of that time as: Either you were a teacher, a nurse or you got married. So, she became a teacher, first in Jersey City, N.J., while she obtained her first masters in the early 1970s. Rifenbary then returned to her hometown of Kingston, N.Y., where she taught English. 

When she was 24 years old, Rifenbary made her way to Berlin, Germany, teaching at the John F. Kennedy School, an experience she described as life changing. Rifenbary taught German students, American students (children of the post-war american military presence) and students of expats from around the world, obtaining her masters in counseling along the way. 

After nine years, Rifenbary went back to upstate New York before coming to UNM in 1990 as an associate professor. 

Rifenbary described herself as a career educator, but has held various administrative positions at UNM including department chair and the associate dean position. 

“How do I balance it? You don’t. I think that when you become an administrator, some of the things you’re most passionate about, such as teaching for me, for others individuals its research, are on the back burner for a while,” she said. 

One such passion for Rifenbary is the Stars Assistant Program Austrian-American Student Teacher Exchange, which Rifenbary helped found. 

Every year, the college sends a handful of students to teach for about a month in Vienna, Austria. Student teachers instruct Austrian students on math, science, language arts and a variety of other topics. 

Rifenbary said the experience teaches the American students to think on their feet and gain a sense of global citizenship. In the last three years, Austrian students had the chance to come to New Mexico to study. She said that the program is a way she can live vicariously through students, hearkening back to her nine years teaching in Berlin. 

Despite the new mantle of dean, Rifenbary was still making time for the program. She was set to board a flight to Vienna, when the Daily Lobo interviewed her. 

“I think my whole life as an educator has evolved. I set small goals and then achieve the small goals and then another door opened. And that’s where I am at this point in my life,” Rifenbary said. 

Justin Garcia is the editor in chief for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at  or on Twitter @Just516Garc.